Monday, July 7, 2008
ELEGANT NIGHTMARES, by Jack Sullivan
Wouldn't this be a great name for a blog? (I considered it for a while.) Sullivan's ELEGANT NIGHTMARES is a great critical overview of some of the essential ghost story writers for both the experience reader of supernatural fiction, and the neophyte just starting off on that fascinating and shadowy path.
I read this first many, many years ago. It was definitely before I went to college, probably while I was in high school. I remember jotting down all sorts of titles to hunt down, but had little luck until my mature years in finding them. Then again, many of the stories Sullivan discusses were, at the time, out of print and available only in libraries or absurdly expensive and absurdly rare editions.
ELEGANT NIGHTMARES is limited in scope. It's subtitled "The English Ghost Story from Le Fanu to Blackwood," which may not sound like much, but he makes the most of it.
Sullivan (a professor of English at NYU and Columbia, when the book was published in 1978) opens with a discussion of J. Sheridan Le Fanu, spanning two chapters. The first examines and dissects a single Le Fanu story, "Green Tea," which Sullivan regards at the archetypal English ghost story. In the next, he expands on his view of Le Fanu's work, plumbing the subtexts of stories I've read many times, like "Carmilla," pointing out things that I've frequently noticed but never really pieced together. He even makes a case for Le Fanu as a precursor to Lovecraft in developing an organized mythos, with antagonists showing up in multiple stories. Le Fanu depends a lot on dreams and nightmares, on menaces that strike seemingly at random, sometimes with no seeming motivation other than a simple desire to do evil.
Sullivan's focus next turns on M. R. James and the "antiquarian ghost story," which focuses on the dusty scholar seeking knowledge and who often inadvertantly uncovers a supernatural menace. My friends all know that I adore M. R. James and his subtle style, perhaps a side-effect of an early life lived in a house full of antiques, of living in a modern house in a very ancient and historical area (it was built on the site of a colonial brick factory, and near an immense mansion said to be haunted by several different ghosts, and near the unmarked grave of a Civil War soldier, and near a grove of trees used as a trash dump early in the 20th century, where all sorts of interesting things could be unearthed), and of sometimes feeling out of sync with the modern world. (Hell, I still feel that way sometimes.) James' gaunt horrors in crumbling settings are perfect English ghost stories and Sullivan gives them due respect.
Another chapter is devoted to "Ghost Stories of Other Antiquaries" which is a tantalizing chapter. Obviously, James was a huge hit in his time (and is still regarded as one of the all-time greats), so many followed in his footsteps, with varying degrees of success. Sometimes they would put a personal stamp on the style that would work well...and sometimes not. And all too often, these stories are still hard to find. L. P. Hartley, Walter de la Mare, H. R. Wakefield and the Benson brothers are frequently anthologized, or get special editions these days, but the works of E. G. Swain, L. T. C. Rolt, R. H. Malden, and Sir Arthur Grey don't often see print today. Which is a disgrace; I've managed to read some of their works, and they're more than deserving. (In some cases, etexts can be tracked down online; good luck with that, and any question of copyright laws is left to you and your conscience.)
Sullivan ends on Algernon Blackwood, the progenitor of what he terms the "visionary ghost story," in which horrors are moved out of crumbling houses and out into the outdoors, and often exist in surreal, pantheistic ways, like in his deservedly famous story "The Willows." Blackwood also marks where the quaint Victorian/Edwardian tropes of Le Fanu and James (and their followers) begin to merge with more modern prose styles.
This is a slim volume, only 135 pages, but is immensely informative without being overly dry and academic. Any fan of the genre (and if you're reading this blog, you are, you know you are) will be sitting with their notebook and a pencil by their side, scribbling down titles and authors to be looked up later.
Sullivan also published an anthology, LOST SOULS, where he puts together some of the stories he mentions here in ELEGANT NIGHTMARES, and he also edited the massive PENGUIN ENCYCLOPEDIA OF HORROR AND THE SUPERNATURAL, which I've had for years and didn't connect the two (can you believe it?). Jack Sullivan is still around, and has more recently published some works of musical criticism, including a 2006 book on music in Hitchcock films.
ELEGANT NIGHTMARES can be found in libraries; check your local system, and do an interlibrary loan request for it if you can, as I did. I've sought used copies online and they can be prohibitively expensive, sometimes going as high as $60 and up. LOST SOULS is more readily available and cheaper, and is worth investigating as well. Look for 'em both, you won't be sorry. And the PENGUIN ENCYCLOPEDIA is regarded by some as a definitive reference work on the subject.
And if you're a regular Dust & Corruption reader, be sure to catch the PBS series History Detectives, now showing so check your local listings. It's perfectly suited for our sensibilities; investigating old relics and dusty old volumes in search of clues...ah, that's living.